I’ve been trying to process my thoughts about the whole Has Justine Landed meme that hit the news this week.
For those who aren’t aware of it, here is a summary.
Personally, I read Sacco’s tweet as ironic, taking the piss out of the very attitude many other readers saw it as promoting. But be that as it may, even if the tweet itself was not ironic, and was genuinely prejudiced, I can’t help but feel very uncomfortable about the whole saga.
For one thing, I don’t know how old Sacco is but based on the photos posted online she doesn’t look more than mid-twenties. I think back to my mid-twenties and plenty of the idiotic things I thought and said at that age, and I shudder to think of being judged by the entire world for them. Maybe all the twitter commentators bagging her were intelligent and erudite at a much earlier age, but personally I like to err on the side of compassion when it comes to things like the development of wisdom because fuck knows, I’m in need of it myself.
Sacco had less than a fairly small twitter presence; it’s hard to argue that anybody was taking down a big target here. This wasn’t a multinational company talking, it was a young girl employed by a company nobody had really heard of. But that didn’t stop people from signal-boosting the tweet and slamming her online, while she was offline and had no opportunity to respond or defend herself.
Social media frenzies are nothing new. There are probably hundreds a year, although not many get the press that this one did. Part of it was the perceived humour of the #hasjustinelanded hashtag, based on the idea that she would arrive in South Africa and get off the plane, after being offline for many hours, unaware of the furore and anger that had been unleashed against her. Which strikes me as a pretty fucking cruel kind of comedy, but I’m willing to allow that not everybody involved had ill intent toward her, and many were just signal boosting what they believed a conscience issue. Still, it’s hard not to feel that the proportionality was getting way out of control. I hear worse comments than Justine’s at work every week. I hear bigots every day on the street. Hell, my relatives have been known to say some pretty dodgy things. Would I want to expose any of those people to a worldwide shitstorm of hate as a result?
Or is it something that is reserved for anonymous, online people we will never have to meet and look in the eye?
Then of course there were the death threats, and threats of rape. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t help feel the mob had kind of surrendered the high ground somewhere along the line.
Then the furore meant that the company she worked for sacked her. Gutless acquiescence to the easiest face-saving manoeuvre or genuine attempt to reform the company attitudes? You decide. Regardless, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Sacco. I don’t care if she’s a bigot, and worse, I kind of think she’s not (from what I’ve read she was a small-l liberal lefty making a gag that didn’t go well). But even if she is a bigot, I feel compassion for her. What a horrible week she had to endure at the hands of other humans. How sad that we think making someone feel small, causing them pain and suffering and robbing them of their livelihood, is a sign of our moral superiority.
But of course, it was worth it, right? Because now the world is just that bit much safer. Because, well, wait, what did this all achieve again? News media all over the world is reading a convenient simple moral into all of this: the moral of the tale is “Be careful what you tweet.”
Well that’s a very useful moral and well worth putting somebody through abuse, threats, job loss and pain. That’s a deep message and not at all trite and lazy journalistic fumblings that were outdated five years ago.
I liked this response from Tauriq Moosa. In particular:
“It is this move to caricature that’s part of what allows us to be bizarrely antagonistic and hateful to each other, publicly online; consider how people respond to celebrities… Black and white, good versus evil, smart versus dumb. Caricature is the only way to believe people fit so neatly into categories worth opposing, instead of considering them other humans with feelings, family and failure.
clearly what does need to change is the default to hate, the default to leap into the moral bandwagon and yell loudly about how moral you are instead of acting in a way that actually advances that cause. Anyone can scream at a stranger”
Maybe it’s time we stopped these timeworn warnings of “Be careful what you tweet” and started looking at our own reactions. Maybe the problem is not people saying stupid things on twitter (although they incontrovertibly do). Maybe the real problem is that we’ve gotten stupider at reading them. Instead of looking for complexity, instead of taking our own first reaction with a grain of salt, instead of brushing against the popular view, instead of seeing nuance and ambiguity, we reach for the first available handle on the situation, anything that allows us to assert our moral self-righteousness, anything that makes us look better and other people look worse. Maybe amid the constant reassertion of our own goodness and other peoples’ offensive wrongness, we’ve allowed ourselves to become lazy, we’ve stopped looking for surprises in the world and started thinking we know how it all works.
I must admit after reading this story I thought about quitting Twitter. I thought well, if that’s where we’re all heading, I don’t know if I want to be a part of it.
But I believe social media is what we make it. It can be a sledgehammer of judgement, or it can be a tool of compassion and kindness. I don’t believe (don’t want to believe) that the majority of people who jumped on the bandwagon wished Sacco any harm. But we need to become more aware of what we’re doing, where we’re driving this bus. Because the warning signs are all there; sooner or later, innocent, good people are gonna get run over. And we can be the ones blaming them for being in the wrong spot, or we can be the ones trying to drive with more awareness.